Testing for Results: Helping Families, Schools and Communities
Understand and Improve Student Achievement
By U.S. Department of Education
On Jan. 8, 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child
Left Behind Act of 2001. This new law embodies his education
reform plan and is the most sweeping reform of the Elementary
and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) since it was enacted in
1965. The new law redefines the federal government's role
in kindergarten-through-grade-12 education. Designed to help
close the achievement gap between disadvantaged and minority
students and their peers, the new law will change the culture
of America's schools so that they define their success in
terms of student achievement and invest in the achievement
of every child. The act is based on four basic principles:
stronger accountability for results, increased flexibility
and local control, expanded options for parents, and an emphasis
on teaching methods that have been proven to work.
The first principle of accountability for results involves
the creation of standards in each state for what a child should
know and learn in reading and math in grades three through
eight. With those standards in place, student progress and
achievement will be measured according to state tests designed
to match those state standards and given to every child, every
The new law will empower parents, citizens, educators, administrators
and policymakers with data from those annual assessments.
The data will be available in annual report cards on school
performance and on statewide progress. They will give parents
information about the quality of their children's schools,
the qualifications of their teachers, and their children's
progress in key subjects. The tests will give teachers and
principals information about how each child is performing
and help them to diagnose and meet the needs of each student.
They will also give policymakers and leaders at the state
and local levels critical information about which schools
and school districts are succeeding and why, so this success
may be expanded and any failures addressed.
Still there are many misconceptions about these annual assessments.
The following will explain the role of these new state tests
in improving student achievement and address some of the misunderstandings
about the changes to come.
The U.S. Department of Education wants to be a partner with
states and school districts and a resource for families and
community members. If you have additional questions about
testing or about other features of the new law, we encourage
you to visit our Web site at www.ed.gov
or call us at 1-800-USA-LEARN.
Measuring Student Progress
When President Bush delivered his education reform proposal
to Congress last year, he said, "We must confront the
scandal of illiteracy in America, seen most clearly in high-poverty
schools, where nearly 70 percent of fourth-graders are unable
to read at a basic level." The National Assessment of
Educational Progress has found that average reading scores
for 17-year-olds have not improved since the 1970s. In 1998,
60 percent of 12th-graders were reading below proficiency.
Perhaps even more distressing is that this trend of low performance
by our schools reaches back more than two decades, during
which time the taxpayers have spent $125 billion on elementary
and secondary education. For years we have been measuring
success in schools by how many dollars we spend, how many
computers and textbooks we purchase, and how many promising
programs we create. Too many of our nation's schools have
not measured up because our measures for success have been
ineffective. That's why under the No Child Left Behind Act
of 2001, which passed the U.S. Congress with strong bipartisan
support, states are required to use a method of measuring
student progress that teachers use in their classrooms every
We need to test children on their academic knowledge and
skills for the same reason we take them to the dentist to
see whether or not they have cavities; because we need to
know. As caring adults, we want the children in our lives
to have healthy teeth because we know that their teeth have
to last a long time. If the dentist finds that their teeth
are not healthy, then we get the cavity filled, and we teach
them how to brush correctly, to use dental floss and avoid
too much sugar. Children don't like going to the dentist,
and we don't like the expense, but we do it because it's the
right thing to do.
The same is true of annual academic assessment. Because education
lasts children a lifetime, leads to their financial security,
and gives them a chance to pursue the American dream, we want
to know which children are catching on and which ones are
not. Then we want to take the ones who are not and teach them
how to read, how to add, how to study, and how to learn.
Under the No Child Left Behind Act, each state retains the
responsibility to decide what their students should learn
in each grade. States are to develop rigorous academic standards
(most are already doing this), and those standards should
drive the curriculum, which, in turn, must drive instruction.
Annual statewide assessments will be aligned with the curriculum
to provide an external, independent measure of what is going
on in the classroom, as well as an early indicator showing
when a student needs extra help. The results of these tests
can be used to direct resources, such as after-school tutoring
or summer school, toward those who are falling behind. Extra
help is not a punishment. It is a responsibility that enables
students to catch up and to increase their chances of success
during the next school year.
Cheryl Krehbiel, a fourth-grade teacher at Broad Acres Elementary
School in Silver Spring, Md., said, "Clearly students
can't learn what I don't teach them. Having the courage to
learn about my own professional needs from the [testing] data
is a lesson that I can't afford to miss." Aside from
taking an honest look at their own skills, teachers can also
use test results at the beginning of the year to find out
where a new class of students stands. For example, teachers,
finding that many of their students are weak in math, can
arrange the classroom schedule to include extra time for math
instruction. If, as a parent, you know that your child's school
has had trouble in the past teaching grammar to third-graders,
you can pay extra attention to your third-grader's progress
in this area. Teachers and principals can look at district
performance data to see which schools have the highest scores
in math and encourage other schools to replicate the successful
teaching practices from those schools.
Successful public schools are not only in the best interest
of students, parents and teachers, but they are also important
to a strong economy and viable communities. Susan Traiman,
director of education initiatives at the Business Roundtable,
said, "The business community sees testing as one of
the most important tools for improvement . . . . It's very
important to find out how you're doing, face up to any problems,
and then have a proactive approach to doing something about
it . . . . There will be consequences, and most of the consequences
are to get folks extra help, to give them tools to succeed."
Employers need to have confidence that a high school diploma
means something, that a graduate has the knowledge and skills
needed to succeed. Members of a community need to have confidence
that with each high school graduation, a new group of educated,
productive citizens is on its way to taking on important roles
Life is full of exams, judgment calls and forms. By the time
most people reach the age of 20 they have already taken a
driving test, filled out a credit card application, signed
a lease, and submitted a W-2 form to the IRS. None of these
activities is fun. All can be stressful, but they are all
part of a life that we accept. In order to provide a quality
education for every child in America, we must first test them
to find out which children are not learning at the level or
pace necessary to keep up.
U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said, "Anyone
who opposes annual testing of children is an apologist for
a broken system of education that dismisses certain children
and classes of children as unteachable." When we do not
know whether or not a child is learning, how will we ever
provide that child with a quality education? President Bush
and the U.S. Congress have challenged educators to set high
standards and hold students, schools and districts accountable
for results. The stakes are too high to not do a good job
of measuring student performance.
Myths and Realities about Testing
Testing students is nothing new. Good teachers have always
tried to measure how well their students are learning and
used tests to recognize student achievement and uncover learning
problems. Without measuring student achievement, the only
criteria governing student grades and promotion would be behavior
in class and attendance.
Testing has only recently emerged as an issue because taxpayers
are asking more and tougher questions about the performance
of their schools and students and seeking more and better
information about school and student performance. The results
of teacher-designed exams and a wide assortment of "off
the shelf" tests are helpful, but they shed little light
on school performance and academic program impact. A strong
accountability system composed of annual testing keyed to
rigorous academic standards and a challenging curriculum taught
in the school provides the sort of information needed to determine
what works, what doesn't, how well students are achieving,
and what to do to help those who need help.
As the use of standardized tests increases and parents are
better able to understand the dimensions of school and student
performance, there will be greater pressure on low- performing
schools to improve. This worries those who might feel that
pressure and so they have attempted to undermine the accountability
movement by challenging the usefulness of testing. The once
common-sense assumption that testing is part of learning is
being challenged by myths created to undermine the effort
to improve America's schools.
Testing suppresses teaching and learning.
A teacher is effective when a student learns. It is impossible
to determine teaching effectiveness without determining learning
results. A teacher can present a great lesson, but if the
students do not understand, then the lesson has no value.
Testing students on what they are taught has always been a
part of teaching. The process of testing students on what
they are learning over a course of instruction is universally
understood and appreciated. Testing helps teachers understand
what their students need, helps students understand what they
need to learn, and helps parents understand how they might
help their children.
Testing narrows the curriculum by rewarding test-taking skills.
Surely a quality education reaches far beyond the confines
of any specific test. But annual testing is important. It
establishes benchmarks of student knowledge. Tests keyed to
rigorous state academic standards provide a measure of student
knowledge and skills. If the academic standards are truly
rigorous, student learning will be as well.
Testing promotes "teaching to the test."
Those who say testing gets in the way of learning frame a
false dichotomy. Testing is part of teaching and learning.
Gifted and inspiring teachers use tests to motivate students
as well as to assess to their learning. Effective teachers
recognize the value of testing and know how to employ testing
Testing does not measure what a student should know.
In a strong accountability system, the curriculum is driven
by academic standards, and annual tests are tied to the standards.
With this in place, tests not only measure what a student
should know but also provide a good indication of whether
or not the student has indeed learned the material covered
by the curriculum.
Annual testing places too much emphasis on a single exam.
Most Americans see the importance of visiting a physician
for an annual checkup. They also recognize the importance
of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and monitoring their health
throughout the year. Annual testing provides important information
on student achievement, so teachers and parents may determine
how best to improve student performance and diagnose problems
that might be associated with poor performance. If a single
annual test were the only device a teacher used to gauge student
performance, it would indeed be inadequate. Effective teachers
assess their students in various ways during the school year.
As they do this, they not only monitor student achievement
but also help to ensure that their students will excel on
Testing discriminates against different styles of test takers.
A well-designed evaluation system accommodates special needs.
Evaluating the performance of all students is not easy. Some
students do have trouble taking tests. Some students score
poorly for reasons outside the classroom. A good evaluation
system will reflect the diversity of student learning and
Testing provides little helpful information and accomplishes
A good evaluation system provides invaluable information that
can inform instruction and curriculum, help diagnose achievement
problems and inform decision making in the classroom, the
school, the district and the home. Testing is about providing
useful information and it can change the way schools operate.
Testing hurts the poor and people of color.
The fact is that millions of young people;many from low-income
families, many people of color-are being left behind every
day because of low expectations for their academic achievement
and a lack of adequate measures to determine academic achievement.
These are the students who stand to benefit the most from
annual testing. A strong accountability system will make it
impossible to ignore achievement gaps where they exist. Moreover,
where testing systems are now in place, low-income and minority
students are indeed excelling. A recent study reports that
there are more than 4,500 high-poverty and high-minority schools
nationwide that scored in the top one-third on the state tests.
Testing will increase dropout rates and create physical and
emotional illness in children.
The overwhelming majority of students who drop out of school
do so because they are frustrated. They cannot read or write
or learn. Testing helps with the early identification of students
who are having trouble learning so they may get the services
they need to succeed. Testing, in any form, does sometimes
cause anxiety. Effective teachers understand this and help
students prepare for it. Testing is a part of life, and young
people need to be equipped to deal with it.
U.S. Department of Education (www.ed.gov),
Office of the Under Secretary and Office of the Intergovernmental
and Interagency Affairs, Washington, D.C., 2002. This report
is in the public domain. Authorization to reproduce it in
whole or in part is granted.
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